On Monday, June 17, 2019, a video clip went viral on social media showing Professor Augustine Nwagbara, a visiting Nigerian lecturer at the University of Education, Winneba, Ghana, speaking to a gathering of Nigerians in Ghana. In the video, the professor of English Language and Literature from the University of Lagos lamented the negative perception and difficulties confronting the Nigerian community and suggested that the Nigerian media should visit Ghana to investigate the plight of Nigerians.
After the clip went viral, there was a massive backlash against Nwagbara, who was branded a “war” professor “hatching plot to tear up Ghana.” He was accused by the Ghanaian Police of “hate speech” but was later released on self-recognition. Following death threats, Nwagbara went into hiding after being dismissed by the University of Education, and later returned to Nigeria.
In an interview which was monitored by WestAfrica 24, he speaks exclusively to Daily Sun for the first time after the incident and narrates what transpired.
A video recently went viral on social media, where you urged the Nigerian media to come to Ghana and investigate the plight of Nigerians. What actually transpired at that meeting?
There had been some misunderstandings between Nigerians and Ghanaians and the Ghanaian authorities, which resulted in what some people may describe as xenophobic situations. Nigerians got concerned because there are many legitimate Nigerians living in Ghana who are not involved in doing those things that led to the situation that we had and they felt that the issues needed to be addressed. They had a forum and invited the Nigerian High Commission to come and listen to their own side of the story and see what could be done. Because the high commissioner was going to be around, some of us who were lecturers in the university (that occasion had four Nigerian professors) decided to attend.
When we got there, the issue that was being discussed was the experience of Nigerians living in Ghana and what could be done to help the situation because we found out that the problem was caused by lack of communication, misunderstanding and some cultural issues. The video was a little surprising because there were more significant people there who made contributions. I also made contributions but how it got recorded and got out is what we are still worried about because it was a house meeting. The person you saw in the video that went viral was me, but it was stitched up because if you look through it, you would notice that it didn’t start from the beginning. The situation became worse because the Ghanaian media had taken a lot of time to portray Nigerians as criminals, to the extent that even Nigerians started accepting it.
My response was that the world is made up of two kinds of people: good and bad, and they are found in every country. So we should not buy the narrative of ‘we are bad’ and ‘they are good,’ which has been the big contention in Ghana. I said in the video that Nigerians were not totally bad and Nigerians were not totally good, just like Ghanaians were not totally good and not totally bad either. I told them not to buy the propaganda but that they should fish out the few Nigerians who were doing illegitimate acts. Unfortunately, these people are underground, they don’t come out but what they do rubs off negatively on the rest of the amazing Nigerian community doing legitimate business. There are Nigerian doctors, professors, bankers, industrialists, entrepreneurs doing amazing things in Ghana, yet the media doesn’t talk about those ones.
When this problem was pointed out, the next question that came up was what the Nigerian High Commission should do about it. I suggested that they embark on a media campaign to let them know the true situation. But some people said the Ghanaian media was not friendly, and then I said we should get the Nigerian media. There are Nigerian media houses that have global outreach; I suggested that the high commission should bring them to Ghana and let them do documentaries to show the exceptional work that Nigerians were doing in Ghana and also show the challenges. People at the forum complained also that Nigerians were being harassed both by the police and immigration and were usually locked up in prisons for flimsy reasons like hawking goods. I then responded that it was possible that the Ghanaian authorities may not know but that if Nigerian media highlights it, it would attract their attention. I also suggested that the high commission should create help lines in strategic places so that Nigerians could reach out when they had problems because we heard that when some Nigerians were arrested, they had no one to talk to who could bail them out, so they remain there.
The other topic that came up was that they discriminated against them in education by charging them so much, and I responded by saying that there were better schools in Nigeria, which charged less, so why were they in Ghana? For instance, UNILAG is one of the best, if not the best university, in West Africa, and you don’t pay much as a Nigerian national. I told the parents that even if their children eventually returned to Nigeria, the skills they would need to survive were not in Ghana. Ghana is a calm place but in Nigeria, we are gregarious and assertive. If you grow up in this kind of calm, somber environment, you may not cope if you return to Nigeria. You can see that the video missed out that part. What we discussed at that gathering was more of cautioning some Nigerians who were not doing right and proffering solutions, but some people stitched up the video and took the part that was convenient for them, which suited their agenda.
The issue that has been the most contentious in Ghana was that I disparaged their education and that is not entirely true. I met wonderful Ghanaian students and colleagues. When this incident happened, two patterns emerged, which really surprised me.
What was it?
The younger ones didn’t initially believe the video; they wanted to confirm from me first and so many of them reached out to me. But the older Ghanaians were very angry and they believed the video.
But what were your expectations?
It showed a new pattern in education, a new dimension that is emerging. The younger generation is a digital generation and they know the intricacies. They questioned the video but the older ones believed everything, though I would say it wasn’t across board because my colleagues in the university gave me a chance to explain myself. But the management of the university didn’t think the same way. Many Ghanaians were so angry that I had to sue one of the publications. I said I had come to love Ghana and I had no intention of running the country down.
But the Ghanaian media went all out, especially Joy TV, Joy FM and many others who felt they would succeed in running Nigeria down, which is really sad. Throughout that period, no single Ghanaian journalist reached out to me to hear my side of the story, but the report was on the news every day for not less than three hours. There were panel discussions and debates on TV and radio over the issue but no media house in Ghana deemed it fit to reach out to me. Some media houses accused me of hate speech and inciting the public. My impression was that the Ghanaian media did not act professionally in respect to the incident.
Could it be that they tried reaching you on phone but you didn’t pick or they sent messages to you but you didn’t respond?
It was after the university had issued a release that I had been sacked that someone called me saying he was from Star FM. The call came long after the damage had already been done and I was even afraid for my life. I considered the call very rude because the first thing the person, who had never spoken to me before, asked when I picked the phone was: ‘‘Am I talking to Austin Nwagbara?” I said yes. The person said: “Where are you? Where is your location?” Courtesy demands that the proper thing to do was to introduce himself first, before asking me questions. Do you want me to believe a journalist did that? At a time when I felt my life was at risk, the first thing someone asked me was my location. I felt it was too unprofessional, and I cut the call. The high commissioner later invited me to the commission to state my own side of the story and we then went to the police station.
So you weren’t arrested?
That was the Ghanaian police narrative. I was in the company of Nigerian diplomats when I went to the police station. I was never arrested. I was surprised when the police said I needed to be bailed but even at that, I was bailed on self-recognition. By the time I left the police station and was going to my house, it was all over the news that I had been arrested. I was shocked. I could understand that the police wanted to pacify their people but why go through all that? The Ghanaian media called me all sort of names: ‘Nigerian war professor’, ‘Professor who incited Nigerians’ and all that. It was at that point that I felt I needed to leave the country because I felt unsafe.
When I was at the police headquarters and was taken to the Ghanaian police chief, who passed on the case to the director of the Criminal Investigative Department, I asked for police protection. They brushed it aside and said nothing would happen to me. After the Ghanaian media had incited the people, I was afraid to move around. I left my things in Ghana and had to come back to Nigeria.
The university where I was lecturing set up a panel on a Tuesday (the day I went to the police station) to investigate and I was at the panel the next day, which was Wednesday, around 3.30pm and left around 6pm. Before I went to the panel that Wednesday, Joy TV had already announced that I had been sacked. I thought it was fake news. I got out of the panel by 6pm but before I could drive to my house, the university had issued a release that I had been dismissed. I was still driving home from the panel when I listened to the news on my car radio that I had been dismissed. Already, they were working from a conclusion.
Does it imply that the release was sent to the Ghanaian press even before you faced the panel?
Yes. Sure. I even saw a statement online from the university addressed to me, dismissing me, which I haven’t received till today either by email or direct link. As I was leaving, I called some of my colleagues and told them that if I have any mail, they should pass it to my embassy. I have spoken to the embassy, up till yesterday (last Friday); no mail has gotten to the Nigerian High Commission in Ghana. I want to take it that I have not been dismissed, but if that is true, it means they seem to be justifying what was in the video that the system is flawed. I wasn’t recruited on the media. If the university wants to make any decision regarding the matter, the dismissal letter should first be given to me directly and not to the press. Moreover, so you dismiss someone on sabbatical? I’m a visiting staff, and you can only terminate my sabbatical appointment. Two hours after the letter was released, someone in Asia sent it to me online and I called my head of department to ask her what was going on and she hadn’t also seen it. What kind of system is that?
The first letter of dismissal that was online was not signed, and then maybe someone reminded them that it was not signed, so they released a second one. But this time, it was signed. Both the unsigned and signed one were addressed to me but were never sent to me till date.
Whose name was on the release and did you reach out to the person?
It’s the university registrar and why should I reach out to him? I had faced a panel and even if they find me guilty, should go through the university council; that is standard procedure. I made it clear to the panel that my biggest worry was that I looked ungrateful to my host, which is not my style. I feel the media cashed in on the xenophobic feelings they were promoting to edit the video to effect because, if you check, the first posting of the video was done by a Ghanaian journalist.
Was there any Ghanaian in that forum?
I don’t want to speculate on how the video got out but I know that whoever put the video out did it for an effect and it worked. Shockingly, student exam scripts were with me when I was supposedly dismissed but these are young people and I didn’t want to put their lives on hold, so I went to hand over the scripts to the department head. If I wanted payback for how I was treated, I would take the scripts back to Nigeria till we sort things out, but I didn’t want these young people to suffer for it. So far, their actions have left more questions than even the issues I raised in the video. I must put on record that a Ghanaian professor partly supervised my PhD, so I don’t have disregard for them. I have very great friends in the academics. I won’t blame the university because I think they were obeying orders from the top.
Orders from the government?
You know their system is a bit different from ours. Here in Nigeria, our universities are somewhat independent. A state governor cannot just tell someone to dismiss or employ a lecturer; that is the beauty of what ASUU has been able to do. ASUU has been able to extract our universities from government’s interference, making them independent, to a large extent. There, they are tied to the government and there is an extent to which an institution can challenge government. The first instruction that came from the government was to terminate; it was the university that said they would first investigate.
Let us say that everything in that video is true. Do they not realise that dissent is part of academic culture? Should the university always say what everybody wants to hear? Should academics go to the government to obtain permission before they say anything? That way, you are killing knowledge. Today, the Ghanaian media might be celebrating, but they should know that when a domestic fowl is being sacrificed and the wild fowl is celebrating, the next sacrifice may be the wild fowl. It is the turn if the non-Ghanaian now in the fire, when the foreigners who say things you don’t want to hear go, you will be the next. But my fear is what they are doing to the intellect. Is that the reaction to someone saying what you don’t want to hear? If a Nigerian said the education system there isn’t good, I expected Ghanaian academics to run a superior argument. But I am worried that there was an uncritical acceptance of the situation, which is damaging. Universities are known for being critical and creative.
You mentioned xenophobia and referred to the negative experiences that Nigerians were passing through. Could you be more specific. What was the problem that made the high commission to set up a forum in the first place?
The whole conflict is about trade. There is a Ghanaian law that says retail business should be done by Ghanaians and foreigners are restricted, and the Nigerian trader is a more aggressive person. Now, doing that in a society that is very calm, where a customer will have to go to a trader to negotiate, versus where a trader will not wait but will walk up to a customer to negotiate offers causes friction. But the immediate cause of what led to that gathering was the deportation of Nigerians. There was also conflict between the Ghanaian police and Nigerians whom the Ghanaians accused of being intrusive and fighting the authorities. There was already an anti-Nigerian sentiment and when that video surfaced, the Ghanaian media leveraged on it to push the anti-Nigerian propaganda that even the literate and legitimate Nigerians are bad.
What was the response of the Nigerian High Commission?
They were wonderful, if not, things would have gone bad. They reached out to me on their own and took me to the police station to ask for police protection. The police charged me for incitement and making statements possible of infringing on public peace.
Did the high commission address the issues that led to the gathering?
The situation has calmed down now and the locking up of shops owned by Nigerians at Kumasi has been handled; the police are now protecting that area but we do not know how long that would last.
One of the statements you made in that video was that the present government in Ghana came to power riding on the back of bashing Nigeria. Did the Nigerian political situation actually play a role in their electoral process?
Listen to their President’s comments. There has been serious anti-Nigerian sentiment that has been unchecked until things started getting very bad to the extent that the Nigerian High Commission released a statement telling the Ghanaian media to stop criminalising Nigerians. It was made a day before I went to the police and that press release really helped to calm things down because even the members of parliament had to caution people.
There is the belief that Ghanaian education is of a higher standard than that of Nigeria, which explains why you have so many Nigerians trooping to Ghana. But in that viral video, you debunked it, calling it a misconception. On what premise did you draw your conclusion?
It is what has caused immense backlash. Before I can make any conclusion on which educational system is better, there are checks that need to be done. We need to carry out scientific levels of experimentation to do that because, if you say yes or no, you are dismissing one system or degrading the other. There may be areas of strengths and weaknesses, which I would rather address in a scientific setting. I would encourage the Nigerian media to go over there and see what is happening for the benefit of both countries.
There are areas of friction between West African countries, especially in terms of immigration and trade and the countries should look into it. Also because of our very huge population, it is easy to know when Nigerians immigrate to other African countries. One per cent of Ghana’s population can migrate to Nigeria and no one would notice, but it would be so obvious if 1 per cent of Nigeria’s population moves to Ghana. Again, they should know that criminality has no citizenship anywhere.
If another similar scenario presents itself, would you make those statements you made in that video?
What is wrong in saying Nigerians should get a helpline? What is wrong in saying the media should come and find out what is happening to Nigerians in Ghana? Is the media a cult group? When someone is saying go to the media, is it not legitimising a situation? I said the media should come and run documentaries. I didn’t say they should run propaganda. What is wrong with what I said? I said go to the prisons and find out, but you may also not be allowed to enter. What is wrong with that?
The understanding of Ghanaians may be that you want the Nigerian media to air documentaries running down Ghana.
But is the message not explicit enough? Or do people select what they want to understand? Except I didn’t communicate well. I was addressing a Nigerian audience and I was telling them that you don’t do certain things in a foreign land. I remember I advised that the response should be subtle and not frontal; didn’t they hear that? What is wrong with that?
Do these words have other meanings other than what I said? Did I say we should declare media war against Ghana? The Ghanaian media now said I was a war professor. Is that not part of legitimising the problem that we were talking about; the demonisation of Nigeria in the Ghanaian media? When we were struggling to get out of it, the Ghanaian media was making the situation worse. If it could happen to me, what would happen to a trader who possibly has no documentation?
Highly placed Ghanaians were sending me mails to say I went to great lengths to run down their country and I told them that even they believe the video completely; do they not think that I have a side to the story? A senior lecturer, who I had hosted in my office, went to Facebook to insult me without reaching out to me.
Another lecturer, who visited Nigeria and was lodged in the guest house, went round to take pictures of the toilets in UNILAG and sent the pictures to me saying: “This is your world-class university.” I had to go into hiding for sometime before I left Ghana and I didn’t want the row to lead to the loss of any life.
What was the response of the management of UNILAG?
They don’t have any issues with it. I also thank our academic union here; when they saw what was happening, they sent a press release to the Ghanaian authorities and to the university, citing the Kampala Declaration for academic freedom, which I doubt many people knew about. I received support from my colleagues in Ghana and Nigeria.
If you step back, what have you learned from your experience?
The first lesson I learned was to never take things at face value. The second lesson was that situations can change instantly. The third was to never take any situation for granted. I made very great friends in Ghana who supported me greatly and I told them that I don’t blame their country people for their reaction to the video. I only blame the person who worked on that video; the person had an agenda and it worked. I am also blaming those who have suspended critical reasoning and rationality on the grounds of nationalism.
How would you rate our educational system? Would you say it has fallen?
I can’t make a sweeping statement but I will say this: if you give your child your phone, you will be surprised that the level of technological knowledge that child has. That in itself is education. Why should I be testing a child’s ability to calculate when his system can calculate for him?
Is our educational system meeting up with the rest of the world in terms of technology?
No, it is not; but let us not look at the system from the outcome; let us look at it in terms of capacity to think. Our system ignites in the child the capacity to think; that is why they can leave Nigeria and do very well elsewhere but then it is the opportunities and encouragement to put the thinking into practice that we have not given them.
What should government be doing better to improve education? It is not enough to say we can ignite capacity. How can we put that capacity into good use?
The government can do that by creating capacity. Nigerians go elsewhere to pay huge sums for education, yet they can’t pay that here. Look at this building, the cost of maintaining it is huge; is it the N15,000 that undergraduates pay that can maintain it? The fees that students pay can’t even offset lecturers’ salaries alone, not to talk about electricity, laboratories, libraries, etc. People complain that universities always go on strike, which is why they take their kids outside the country to study. What makes a graduate? Is it that you started on Monday and graduated on Thursday? Or that you acquired the knowledge, which you want to acquire? What is the quality of training you get outside?
Nigerians should see education as a national asset and protect it. But everybody leaves it to ASUU and that is why ASUU always goes on strike. ASUU is making sacrifices to save the system. I believe that some people with a certain income level should be taxed separately for education so that teachers’ salaries will be paid constantly. The ridiculous part is that nursery school education is higher than university education. We can’t have development without education. It won’t work.